By: Matthew Walker ’24
I would like to thank Douglas W. and Grace D. Dimitroff, the donors for my Summer 2022 Fellowship through the University at Buffalo School of Law. Because of their generosity, I was able to work at the Volunteer Lawyers Project, Housing Unit. Landlord-Tenant law was an area of law I did not know too much about, but I knew it affected me as a tenant. There were a record number of evictions this summer in Buffalo and I wanted to do my best and help defend tenants In eviction proceedings.
I was assigned a cubicle, as depicted in my photo, and would work on a variety of tasks. One of the most common tasks was to call clients to explain the eviction timelines. The timelines are depicted in the graphic provided to me by the Housing Unit. A lot of clients who called believed they had a few days before an eviction. One of my responsibilities was to call those clients and explain how much time the client realistically had. These calls often consisted of a variety of emotions. Most of the time clients would be relieved that they had a few weeks to prepare for an eviction, instead of a few days. On the other hand, clients would be upset to learn New York was not a good cause eviction state. This means landlords can initiate holdover evictions against their tenants for “really any reason they want,” according to my supervisor.
As I gained experience, I learned about policy changes that would improve conditions for renters. New York City has rent control, resulting in those tenants having more protections than Buffalo tenants do. When doing legal research, it was important to remember that I could not use New York City cases as they were often not applicable to Buffalo. For example, it would break my heart when clients’ landlords were allowed to evict them to make room for a friend or family member. It can often be shockingly easy to force someone out of the apartment or house they call home.
I would attend eviction hearings twice a week with the Housing Unit, where I quickly learned that the outcomes were usually stipulations (negotiated outcomes) or evictions. A stipulation for a payment plan or a stipulation for a mutual termination of a tenancy were preferable to an eviction, and we would do our best to interview clients and negotiate them. Stipulations involved both sides working on the agreements. The court-appointed attorney would begin by saying they did not want to evict anyone, and instead preferred to work out a deal. A payment plan allowed the tenant to catch up on back-rent (arrears) and pay current rent. The goal was to pay any rent owed by an agreed upon date and mend the relationship between tenant and landlord. If this were impossible, the parties would negotiate a mutual termination date by which the tenant would move out. It avoided an eviction on the tenant’s record and the landlord was able to use their property again. A challenge was getting tenants to sign in person. Many times, stipulations were unable to proceed, because tenants had left already, or the tenant’s hearing was virtual. Buffalo City Court changed their policy to allow stipulations to be “on the record.” This helped ensure a smoother stipulation process.
I came into this summer unsure about what law I was interested in. I can confidently say housing law is interesting and important. The Volunteer Lawyers Project taught me many valuable skills. I learned how to send documents to the court, interview clients, negotiate stipulations, and even serve the marshal’s office and opposing counsel with orders to show cause to halt evictions. Once again, I would like to thank Douglas W. and Grace D. Dimitroff, because this summer of learning and growth would not have been possible without their generosity.
Name: Matthew Walker ’24
Name of Fellowship: Douglas W. and Grace D. Dimitroff Fellowship
Placement: Volunteers Lawyers Project
Location: Buffalo, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “I learned how to send documents to the court, interview clients, negotiate stipulations, and even serve the marshal’s office and opposing counsel with orders to show cause to halt evictions.”